You might remember Calamity Jane as the stubborn, singing, tomboy protagonist from the 1953 musical. In that film adaptation, Doris Day portrays the titular Wild West heroine as she befriends the local saloon girl while struggling with her feelings for one Lt. Danny Gilmartin. In the final act, however, Calamity realizes that her true love all along was in fact her friend, the gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. The two embrace passionately and ride off into the sunset...
But were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok actually in love? Both were real-life legends of the American Old West, and indeed had been close acquaintances. To determine whether their romance was just Hollywood fabrication though, you'll need to take a closer look at the history.
The hard-drinking frontierswoman Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary (sometimes spelled Martha Jane Cannary) on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. Three years later, the family moved via wagon train to Virginia City, Montana, and after the death of Jane's mother, to Salt Lake City, Utah. When Jane's father also died, she was just 14 years old and by that point, the oldest of six siblings. Taking charge, Jane moved the family once again, to Wyoming. There, the teen worked a number of odd jobs, including dance hall girls and prostitutes. It's also where she earned the nickname Calamity Jane.
According to Jane's self-professed biography, it was during a campaign against Native Americans in 1872 that the title came to be. She describes in Life And Adventures Of Calamity Jane:
"When fired upon, Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan, on recovering, laughingly said: 'I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.' I have borne that name up to the present time."
Others, however, contended that to court her was to "court calamity." But regardless of the source, the nickname stuck. In 1876, the Deadwood newspaper Black Hills Pioneer printed the iconic headline: "Calamity Jane has arrived!" Prior to that arrival in South Dakota, Jane had hitched up with Wild Bill Hickok's wagon train in Fort Laramie. That's how the fearsome twosome came to arrive together in the town of Deadwood.
Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler Hickok, a.k.a., "Wild Bill" Hickok, was born on May 27, 1837, and found fame on the frontier as a lawman, a gambler, a vigilante, a proud showman, and of course, for his participation in many glorified gunfights.
After serving as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Wild Bill gained local fame for a duel in Springfield, Missouri over a gold watch. Wild Bill had lost it gambling to Davis Tutt, resulting in an all-out quick-draw duel: the first recorded of its kind. Bill was soon cleared of manslaughter charges after the jury chose to rule not guilty based on "the unwritten law of the 'fair fight.' "
From there, the sharpshooter bounced between towns working as a marshal and a ruthless sheriff, eventually landing in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876. That spring, a marriage was recorded between Wild Bill and a 50-year-old circus owner named Agnes Thatcher Lake. But he presumably left this bride for the lawlessness of Deadwood. And sometime around then, too, he also met Calamity Jane, who accompanied him on the trip.
Their rime together in South Dakota, though, was cut short. That same year, on August 2, 1876, Hickok was shot and killed by the "Crooked Nose" Jack McCall while playing poker. The hand of cards he held in that moment has now come to be known as the dead man's hand: two pairs; black aces and eights.
The Historic Relationship
Both Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok's feats have lived in on tall tales, dime novels, and Western dramas. But what of their personal relationship? What evidence remains?
Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick claimed to be the legal offspring of both Calamity Jane and Wild Bill. McCormick, born on September 23, 1873, was adopted. But when applying for welfare assistance in 1941, the then-old woman presented evidence that her mother Jane had in fact married Wild Bill in Montana on September 25, 1873: a Bible, purportedly signed by the couple, ministers, and witnesses.
Later, McCormick published a book with letters that appeared to have been sent by Calamity Jane. In them, her mother admitted that she had indeed married Hickok and that he was McCormick's father. Regardless of the accuracy, the names of Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok have been entwined for eternity.
Following Bill's death, Jane remained in Deadwood and worked as a nurse during the smallpox epidemic. Later in life, she also joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and made an appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Just two years later, though, Calamity Jane passed at the age of 51. After leaving Deadwood, where she was working at her friend Belle Fourche's brothel, Jane fell ill while traveling by train to Terry, South Dakota. She died there, on August 1, 1903. But her body was transported back to Deadwood and buried alongside Wild Bill Hickok's gravestone in Mount Moriah Cemetery. It was her final request. According to some account, Hickok's friends agreed meanly, as a joke, saying that Bill never had feelings for her. Others theorize Deadwood businessmen simply wanted to create a post-mortem tourist attraction. And while that may have worked, they also immortalized an enigmatic love story.